Volatile Organic Compounds in Chemistry

Instructor: Jennifer Perone

Ms. Perone has taught College Engineering, Ethics, Psychology, Perception, Statistics, Experimental Design & Analysis, Physics and secondary STEM topics for more than 15 years!

Volatile Organic Compounds are compounds which have low boiling points and high pressure thresholds that allow them to evaporate quickly into the environment. Combining VOCs with particulate pollution and greenhouse gases (GHGs) significantly lowers air quality.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Do you have a friend who has a quick temper? Would you say that he or she has a low boiling point? Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are the same way in that they easily make phase changes due to low boiling points (i.e. less than 250o C). As for the organic part, all organic compounds contain the element Carbon, along with Hydrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine, Chlorine, Bromine, Sulfur and/or Nitrogen.

A volatile guy!

One of the most important things about the volatility, or easy reactions of VOCs, is that it allows for the formation of ozone when VOCs mix with nitrogen oxide. Ozone consists of three oxygen atoms bound into a molecule with the chemical formula O3. Oxygen usually consists of two oxygen atoms bound into a molecule with the chemical formula O2. Ozone is great up in the troposphere, where it can protect us from harmful UV radiation, but when ozone is produced by mixing VOCs with nitrogen oxide in the air, it becomes quite harmful to all life forms.

This is a representation of a molecule of ozone. Notice how the angles are much like that found in water.

Many volatile organic compounds are hazardous in vapor form. VOCs may be released from various types of burning fuel, such as gasoline, kerosene, wood, coal and natural gas. These can be in the form of emissions from industrial production facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicles, gasoline vapors or chemical solvents. Many common VOCs may be released from paints, glues and solvents that you could find at home and at work.

This is ground-level ozone, more commonly known as smog.

Ozone pollution is of special concern during the warm summer months because the combination of sunlight and hot weather results in harmful ozone concentrations in the air we breathe. Long-term exposure to VOCs can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and the central nervous system, while short-term exposure may cause respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea, irritation of the eyes and vision issues, fatigue, loss of coordination, skin allergies, nausea and memory impairment.

Examples of VOCs

  • Benzene: FROM environmental tobacco smoke, stored fuels, exhaust from cars, manufacture of plastics, resins and certain fibers, volcanos and forest fires. Contaminates water & food. Carcinogen & respiratory irritant.
  • Formaldehyde: FROM building materials such as paints, adhesives, wall boards, and ceiling tiles. Skin & respiratory irritant.
  • Methylene Chloride: FROM adhesive removers and aerosol spray paints. Converts to carbon monoxide in human body, which affects hemoglobin and oxygen use.
  • Perchloroethylene (Tetrachloroethylene): FROM Dry cleaning. Carcinogen & Respiratory issues.
  • Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE): FROM Gasoline (octane booster and oxygenated-additive). Contaminates groundwater. Carcinogen.

Ozone Pollution and Air Quality

Fossil fuel-powered power plants cause significant release of VOCs, as well as particulate air pollution.

Ozone pollution can cause respiratory issues in humans, including worsening of pre-existing respiratory issues via production of scar tissue in the lungs with long-term exposure. Ozone is detrimental to the environment because it affects the amount of usable oxygen in the atmosphere, causing smog and contributing to climate change. Ozone contributes to climate change by decreasing the air quality and stunting the growth of terrestrial (land) and aquatic (water) plants.

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